Four Easy Times Angles.

Four Easy Times Angles.

Four Easy Times Angles.

A mostly political Weblog.
June 6 2003 5:21 AM

4 Easy Times Angles

Plus: Howell-O-Meter RIP

Mnookin responds via e-mail to my churlish comments (below) on his Newsweek piece:

I'm surprised by your lack of nuance! My point in my piece was not that there weren't valid criticisms to be made about the pitfalls of the Times' efforts to diversify or the perils of an activist newshole; as you note, I've made both those points in the past myself. It's the me-me-me, all or nothingism of interest groups of all stripes I found lacking in sophistication and, more importantly, accuracy. (No sooner had Blair resigned than Bill McGowan was sending out press releases and handing our flyers.) Jayson Blair didn't prove that affirmative action was a bad thing -- he proved that Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd didn't have control of their newspaper. Is affirmative action part of this story? Of course! Is the whole last five weeks a parable about diversity? Of course not!

Hmm. Was there rampant all-or-nothingism in the Raines debate? Did Bill McGowan, for example, deny that Raines' practice of "favoritism" was a factor? Did the "liberal bias" crowd deny that affirmative action (as well as Raines' mismanagement) were involved? Mnookin's description doesn't resonate with the debate I heard, in which multicausalism was rampant, and Raines came to personify a variety of congruent sins to a broad swath of people. ... It's very Newsweekish to come up with some meta-commentary on the process ("everyone assumed the debate should focus on their concerns"), relieving the magazine (and Mnookin) of the need to decide whose concerns were accurate--a meta-commentary that also manages to squeeze in a sneer at "right wing ideologues" without having to admit that the right-wing ideologues were, in this case, largely right. I worked at Newsweek and know the imperative to come up with these seemingly "smart" Neutral Story Lines (e.g., "Is This Any Way to Elect a President.") I've written a few of them myself. They're almost always a cop-out of some sort, and in this case Mnookin's "all or nothingism" NSL doesn't even really fit the event. ...


P.S.: Mnookin thinks "Jayson Blair didn't prove that affirmative action was a bad thing." So that's what his Newsweek piece was saying! I'd say Blair did about as much as one example can do to "prove" that affirmative action is a bad thing--and not only by illustrating the potential consequences of lowered standards. The very debate Mnookin decries--with black journalists worrying whether other black journalists like Gerald Boyd are being unfairly tarred, etc.--shows in part the damage affirmative action does on an ongoing basis. Again, without affirmative action, Blair would have just been an individual screw-up. He wouldn't have cast a cloud over other minority journalists who now have to worry if they too are seen as preference hires. End race preferences and that problem largely disappears.... 2:52 P.M.

Coloring the Mnoos: There's been so much attention given to Howell Raines' personal failings (the reason why he had to resign) that it's distracted from the real underlying, and probably ongoing, NYT failure--the Times'  "core problem," you might call it. John Podhoretz reminds us  what it is:

THE problem with The New York Times isn't that tyro reporter Jayson Blair made stuff up. Or that Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg didn't properly credit other reporters for their work under his byline. Or even that Howell Raines, the executive editor who quit yesterday, wasn't nice to people and played favorites and lost the confidence of his newsroom. ...

The chief disgrace of the tenure of Howell Raines and of his boss, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is that they have tried to lay claim to objectivity even as they have consciously attempted to manipulate public opinion.

Meanwhile, Newsweek's Seth Mnookin writes a disappointingly hack, eager-not-to-offend conclusion to the Raines story.

Reporters who didn't end up on the front page complained the cause was favoritism; minority journalists wondered why Boyd, the highest-ranking African-American in the history of the paper, was forced to resign; right-wing ideologues tried to make the Times's implosion a cautionary tale about affirmative action or perceived liberal bias. [Emphasis added]


Does Mnookin really believe it's only right wing ideologues who think affirmative action and liberal bias are implicated--or that the liberal bias is only "perceived"? Of course not. His paragraph is carefully-constructed newsmag BS, designed to avoid alienating any readers (or editors)... I mean, is Podhoretz a "right-wing ideologue?" Well, OK, yes. But is Richard Cohen? Jack Shafer? Or, for that matter, Seth Mnookin, who last December wrote about the "revolution" at the Times under Raines and Pinch Sulzberger:

If Raines is working in any tradition, it's that of the crusading Southern populist. He began his career in Alabama, and cut his teeth at a time when the Southern papers were still charging the barricades of segregation. On the foreign-policy front, the Vietnam era helped cement his skepticism about government authority when lives are on the line. He once said the Reagan years "oppressed me because the callousness and the greed and the hardhearted attitude toward people who have very little in this society." ...

Whatever their track record, it seems clear that the Times's leaders have sometimes gone out on a limb. In August, the paper printed two consecutive front-page stories incorrectly including Henry Kissinger among the "prominent Republicans" opposing war with Iraq (Kissinger had expressed realpolitik reservations but stopped far short of arguing against an attack). [Emph. added.]

P.S.: Worse, Mnookin didn't use the quote I sent him. ...

P.P.S.: There's a connection, I think, between Raines' personal flaws and the "core problem" of the Times pointed out by Podhoretz. 1) Raines' central personal flaw was the ease with which he conflated high moral purpose and low personal interest (jealousy of Clinton, attacks on rival journalists such as James Fallows, sharp criticism of those sections of the Times that just so happened to be associated with his main rival for the top job, etc.). 2) The Times institutional flaw is the conflation of "objectivity" with the active and intelligent prosecution of a mainly liberal political agenda. 3) Maybe it was Raines' facility with Conflation #1 that enabled him push Conflation #2 to an extreme. If you're used to thinking that whatever you do has the exalted moral purpose of Martin Luther King then it's easy to think that everything your paper does is simply "objective" reflections of "news value." ("Call it journalism," as Raines' deputy, Gerald Boyd, famously put it.) ...


It would be nice if the Times abandoned Conflation #2 and came to see itself as simply a well-reported "progressive" publication. I don't think this will ever happen--the NYT'sleaderswould fear loss of credibility if the paper dropped its "objective" claims, and too many Times staffers genuinely buy into the idea that they're simply making "news" judgments. That's why the best we can hope for, I think, is a general toning down of Raines-style activism, even if that's done in the name of "objectivity" (and therefore has the effect of actually perpetuating the essential "objectivity" fraud). ... "Better blatant than latent" is usually a sound rule of thumb. With the NYT, I'll settle for latent. ...

P.P.P.S.: Podhoretz boasts that the Washington Times and New York Post  "do not pretend to be something they're not. They are run by conservatives. Readers know it and are given the opportunity to read them and judge for themselves." True enough. But if Podhoretz is going to make this claim shouldn't he address the ostentatiously phony-objective slogan of Rupert Murdoch's equally conservative Fox News Channel ("fair and balanced")? ... 3:52 A.M.

Who Moved My Moose? The NYT Guide to Corporate Leadership, Part I: It's been pointed out by others (including alert reader J.G.), but the New York Times' press release announcing Howell Raines' departure says the Times' 

core purpose is to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news, information and entertainment.


Let's give them the "enhance society." But what about "creating ... news"? Isn't that, you know, what's been getting them in trouble lately? ... And how many days did well-paid Times executives spend in Pinchy, mooseless meetings hammering out this high-school quality corporate mission statement? 1:50 P.M.

Sunday, June 8, 2003

Back off Baathists! He's vicious! When the Pentagon is forced to arm the movie critic  of the N.Y. Post and deploy him as a peacekeeping asset, you know there are really not enough troops in Iraq. ... 4:21 P.M.

Vendetta shortage hits kausfiles? Kf may have to find something else to write about soon. Luckily, the target of its obsessive criticism is still clinging to his post, lashing out righteously at his critics, and generally acting as if he still enjoys the favor of his corporate bosses. But the embattled Chris Bangle's days as BMW design chief, may be numbered! ... You can read Bangle's bon mots (e.g., "I don't mean to be arrogant about it, but what does a journalist know?") plus a review of Honda's studiously wacky new Gen Y road cube, the Element, in the latest flurryof Gearbox items, available here. (That is a permanent Gearbox link. Gearbox, kf's automotive sister blog, gets updated at all hours, at least in theory.) ... 3:37 P.M.


Friday, June 6, 2003

The enemy of my book has been remaindered: The main battle is over, but many mid-level officials remain scared to talk  because they're still not sure the tyrant or his henchmen won't return. ... But enough about the New York Times! ... In a minute. ... First, read Sridhar Pappu's account  and see if you had the same reaction I did: "Jesus. So this was all Steve Rattner's doing!" Is Rattner, a NYT reporter-turned-investment banker, the V. Botkin (i.e., the secret protagonist) of this saga--or at least the man whispering in Pinch Sulzberger's ear? ... Here he is again! .... Second, Howie Kurtz reports  that incoming interim editor, Joe Lelyveld, and Howell Raines "made no secret of their mutual dislike"--which makes Raines' replacement by the man he just replaced even more humiliating, if that's possible. (Did Lelyveld really want to leave his post 6 months early, back in 2001? Or did Raines and Sulzberger nudge him?)  ... Third, regarding the succession horse race, this old Observer article suggests one advantage for dark horse Gail Collins:

... like Mr. Raines, Ms. Collins has had a good relationship with Mr. [Pinch] Sulzberger through his wife, Gail Gregg. Ms. Collins met Ms. Gregg years ago, when they were both Bagehot Fellows at the Columbia School of Journalism.

But does she have a good relationship with Steve Rattner? ... Fourth, was WaPo's aggressive coverage of the NYT's troubles, mainly by media reporter Kurtz, payback for the Times' having "forcefully maneuvered The Washington Post Co. into selling its half of the International Herald Tribune, which the papers had co-owned since 1991, for $65 million, leaving Post Co. executives bitter"? Unlike Kurtz's other conflict (with CNN), this conflict would have been virtually impossible to eliminate. ...


Headline puns still available: "Baby, the Raines Must Fall," "Who Stopped the Raines?" "Blame It On the Raines" (a Milli Vanilli song--bonus resonance points to reader A.S.). ... 1:38 A.M.

Thursday, June 5, 2003


Short run for the Howell-O-Meter! Here's the NYT press release announcing the resignation of Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd. Quick thoughts: 1) It's not as if the NYT is going to stop being a liberal paper. But maybe the Times' annoying tendency to unashamedly equate Upper West Side liberal sentiments with "objective" reporting ("Call It journalism," as Boyd said of theTimes' embarrassing Augusta crusade) will temporarily abate. It always seemed to me, however, that the trend became apparent under the editorship of Joseph Lelyveld, who has now been brought back as interim editor. 2)  If this had happened 10 years ago, when the Internet didn't exist, Raines would still be running the place. The Times staff would be just as unhappy, but they'd be unable to instantaneously organize and vent their displeasure on Romenesko and elsewhere.  It was this suddenly-transparent internal opposition, more than the constant pummeling from bloggers, that brought Raines down. High-minded instant reaction: It's a) good for the nation if the NYT is strong, but b) not good for the nation if the NYT has a near-monopoly on settting the nation's news agenda, especially the agenda of the TV networks. The NYT will now likely remain strong. Unfortunately Raines probably did not serve long enough to solve problem (b). Low-minded instant reaction: He was a prick whose self-righteousness only barely concealed a banal Darwinian subtext (the most obvious example being his overheated attacks on Bill Clinton, a rival in the Respectable Liberal Southern Boomer ecological niche). 11:05 A.M.

Wednesday, June 4, 2003


At a meeting with his staff yesterday afternoon, business editor Glenn Kramon said that a lot of people thought there was a real possibility that Raines wouldn't survive the paper's current problems, and that his section should seize the initiative and focus on getting good stories in the paper. "The business department sees how companies work," Kramon told NEWSWEEK. "I was just trying to get attention off of, 'Will he or won't he,' and just move forward. 

When the king's officers talk openly to the troops about his possible departure--especially when they are well-informed, career-minded officers, and the king has been known as a vindictive 'are you on my team or Bill Keller's team' authoritarian--it's a very bad sign for the king! ... Meanwhile, Daniel Drezner has already moved on, worrying that Raines will be given a precious op-ed column as a consolation prize. ...Mnookin can find no evidence, however, that publisher "Pinch" Sulzberger is shopping Raines' job. ... Estimated chance of Raines resignation: 70 percent. ... 3:02 P.M.

The Zombie of 43d St: It's a sophisticated exegesis of a sociological phenomenon!  ... And another one! ... P.S.: Gee, why might the Washington bureau of the NYT resent the Raines/Boyd management? Let's see: There's a sniper running around Washington murdering people. A job for the Washington bureau, the way most local Washington shootings are covered by the Washington bureau? No! They're not up to it, say the New York editors, who send in their own, specially-picked team, featuring star reporter Jayson Blair! ...  4:56 A.M.

Salam Pax's Guardian column offers what would seem to be a realistic, funny middle-of-the-road assessment of how things are going in Baghdad. ....If he's a CIA agent, he's a CIA agent who is a born columnist. Who knew the media frenzy around this guy  would be justified? Hope the inevitable TV offers don't ruin him.  ...P.S.: The column would be more trustworthy if it were a blog, thus eliminating any possible interference from Guardian editors. ... That would also be true if it were published in the New York Times. This may be an inherent advantage of blogs--fewer cooks!--at least when it comes to eyewitness reporting (If the eyewitness is honest, editing is more likely to introduce distortions than eliminate them. If the eyewitness is dishonest, no amount of editorial fiddling will render his account trustworthy.)... [Link via Instapundit] 3:40 A.M.

Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Simon Henderson does a much better job of explainng the coalition position  on the "Where are the WMD?" question than William Safire, who contributes a defense of the Bush policy as weak as his defense of his paper's affirmative action policy. The latter column was so unconvincing that some Safire-watchers thought it was intentionally so--that Safire was cleverly signaling to his readers that the Jayson Blair scandal really was all about race preferences. But it's now becoming clear that Safire has just forgotten how to write a convincing op-ed. He's so overconfident of his PR skills he thinks he can wait until the fourth-to-last paragraph to begin his argument.  ... Meanwhile, in a not insignificant development, Mark Bowden, a pivotal journalistic war backer, has gone all wobbly  and now claims (with insufficient self-flagellation, considering) that it "appears as though I was fooled":

They may yet be found, but it is beginning to look as though the skeptics in this case were right. If so, I was taken in by this administration, and America and Great Britain were led to war under false pretenses.

Kf, following Henderson, counsels patience. ... The most alarming possibility, of course, is not there are no WMD, or that we can't find the WMD because Saddam hid or destroyed them, but that we can't find them because, faced with attack, Saddam handed them over to non-state terrorists. That could vindicate war skeptics in a way that even a "no WMD" verdict wouldn't. ...[Henderson link via Instapundit; Bowden is blogged on Conason and Howler.5:57 P.M.

Mark Steyn's report from Iraq--he not unexpectedly thinks things are going fairly well and the America-bashing international relief agencies are making things worse--would be a whole lot more convincing if he'd gone to Baghdad. Why didn't he? ...

Update:Steyn emails --

Hey, you: 

I hit the suburbs and turned north for a simple reason: Baghdad's already full of reporters. They can't all be talking bollocks, can they?

Also, capital cities are always grossly untypical. Take Ottawa or Canberra or Concord, NH. They're company towns where the company is government. So they're full of government employees and thus, when the government's just been overthrown, they're bound to be atypically steamed - just like sawmill workers in Berlin, NH are steamed when the sawmill shuts down. You can't draw general conclusions from whiney Iraqi DMV clerks. 

3:53 A.M.

WaPo's Kurtz--isn't he supposed to be on his honeymoon?-- does his best to keep the NYT crisis alive:

"The whole place is in total rebellion," says one veteran ....

Meanwhile, embattled NYT editor Howell Raines remains silent. ... There hasn't been a Raines with fewer public appearances since Claude in The Invisible Man! ... 2:47 A.M.

"Forget cancer. Is there a cure for hype?": Maybe Derek Lowe will correct me, but it's looking more and more like the irresponsible Gina Kolata was right in 1998 when she hyped Judah Folkman's anti-angiogenesis cancer-fighting theory on the front page of the NYT--and the responsible experts (such as the New Yorker's Atul Gawande) who huffed at Kolata were wrong. Five years later, a seemingly effective anti-angiogenesis drug has now made the front page of the Washington Post.  ... [But Kolata didn't know she was right at the time--ed. That's what the huffers will say. I say they should gracefully apologize. Kolata sensed it was a big story, she explained why, and it turns out she had a good nose. As did her (pre-Raines!) editors.] ... Panic is not a good thing:  Also, in the same WaPo piece ... Martha sold too soon!...Update: It turns out Lowe  already has a post describing some intriguing theories  about why the anti-angiogenesis drugs seem to work. Do they inhibit blood flow to tumors or increase it (enabling other cancer-fighters to get in and do their job)? ... ... 1:59 A.M.

Update:Drugusta! Drug industry insider Derek Lowe senses a NYT Augusta-like anti-pharmaceutical crusade in the making, of which the Robert Pear story criticized below is but a part. ... Lowe's story-by-story analysis isn't all that unflattering to the Times, but some sort of top-down Times directive would seem to be at work. That might explain Pear's apparent failure to follow the basic print journalism rules ... 12:48 A.M.

Sunday, June 1, 2003

Ya wn! In Salon, Kevin Canfield  exposesthe myth of Pete Yorn. ... My local NPR station, KCRW, has been heavily pushing Yorn, but none of his songs has ever done much for me. Now I realize why: He's not that good! ...  I'd go so far as to  propose a Yorn Index of Media Diversity. Specifically, if the levers of American culture are so concentrated in a few corporate (and public broadcasting) hands that they are able to make a near-mediocrity like Yorn a rock star by cramming him down the public's throat then it really is time to remove Michael Powell from office and pack the F.C.C. with populist trust-busters. I don't think we're there yet, though. ... Bonus music item: They've invented a better version of Natalie Merchant who is not, in fact, Natalie Merchant! (Sample this excellent track.) ... [Thanks to non-reader R.G.] 11:56 P.M.

Brill blasts NYT: My old boss, Steven Brill, e-mails:

In Today's Times we have a clear indication that the paper may now be so beset by internal strife that it has fallen off its basic game.

The story by the usually competent Robert Pear about documents detailing the drug industry's lobbying budget and goals for the year is a typically good, important scoop. But what's missing should be clear to anyone who's ever taken a high school journalism class – no effort to get the lobby group itself to comment. 

And if the explanation is that someone at the Times thinks quoting from the internal memos is allowing the group to speak for itself, that is not only absurd but also dangerous in the sense that nowhere in the story are we even told that Pear confirmed with the group that the internal documents are real – ie., that they aren't fake or aren't superceded by later drafts.

 Beyond that, where's the quote from the group saying, "We need spend this money and do all this because….."

Or, "How dare you use our internal documents, which have obviously been furnished to you by our enemies?"

Or, "the other side is going to spend twice as much to ruin the greatest, most caring industry in the free world."

Or, no comment.

And, again, where's the confirmation or no comment to the question about whether the documents are real and present the full picture?

How could anyone, let alone the Times, publish this story with no comment from the group that is the target?  [Link and emphasis added.]

I'd add two additional points:

1) Pear reports blandly, without comment, that a

"memorandum for the PhRMA [the drug industry trade association] board says the industry is on the defensive, facing a 'perfect storm' whipped up by several factors,"

including expanding overseas price contols, Internet sales, and state ballot initiatives, and demands for Medicaid discounts. ... But is the industry really facing a "perfect storm" or are its lobbyists just deploying a scare cliche to justify increasing the trade association's lobbying budget (which means more money and employees for them)? Pear is either unsophisticated or he doesn't want to raise this possibility, because it might undercut from the basic message of his piece, which is that there is a huge front-pageworthy fight brewing and the evil drug companies are out to buy their way to victory;

2) Pear also reports that

"the PhRMA budget allocates $1 million 'to change the Canadian health care system' and $450,000 to stem the flow of low-price prescription drugs from online pharmacies in Canada ... "

Those areshocking numbers--shockingly low. I think it's fair to say that if PhRMA is spending only a million dollars to "change the Canadian health care system" then PhRMA doesn't really hold out much hope of changing the Canadian health care system. Canadians surely can't be bought that cheap. The same goes for stemming "the flow of low-price prescription drugs"--except that the $450,000 figure is so low it's hard to believe it accounts for the drug industry's major effort in this area. (What does $450,000 buy in the corporate world? Half a web site?)  Yet Pear seems to want us to believe that all these numbers are alarmingly high.

I'd argue that the basic bias underlying these shortcomings--in essence, that Pear is playing the willing tool of those who oppose the drug companies' positions--is more important than Pear's failure to get an official comment from PhRMA (which he could then easily bury somewhere in the 'armpit' of his piece). But the latter is a failure too, and a revealing one. It also presumably violates the Times' rules, something they seem to be a bit sensitive aboutthese days. ...

Let the witch hunt continue! ...

P.S. Make 'em deny it! I admit I often haven't followed the "get a response" rule when writing for kf. (I didn't, for example, call Pear before posting this item--though I just sent him an email and will post his response, if any.)  I justify this in part by the difference between the Web and print journalism. On the Web, if the "target" wants to respond, you can quickly put the response in the same place as the original charge, and you don't have to wait a day to do it. And what if you're writing an item in the middle of the night? I say that if a response isn't easy to get, and the charge isn't libelous, and you have good reason to think it's true, it's OK to post the charge and post the response later. ... Then post a response to the response, plus the contributions of other e-mailers and bloggers--and presto, you have Dialogue! You'll get to the truth faster than with print rules under which you wait a day until you can reach some spokesperson (who might use the time to change the facts, or leak the news to a friendlier Web outlet). ...  But I also admit that almost every time I've called a "target" I've learned something--often that the target's P.R. people are liars, but not always. ...

P.P.S.: I didn't call New York'sMichael Wolff either before whacking at him last Friday, but he has sent in a response, which is posted below ...  9:19 P.M.



Drudge Report--80 % true. Close enough! Instapundit--All-powerful hit king. Joshua Marshall--Escapee from American Prospect. Salon--Better click fast! Andrew Sullivan--He asks, he tells. He sells! Washington Monthly--Includes Charlie Peters' proto-blog. the drink. Virginia Postrel--Friend of the future! Peggy Noonan--Gold in every column. Matt Miller--Savvy rad-centrism. WaPo--Waking from post-Bradlee snooze. The Liberal Death Star--Registration required.  NY Observer--Read it before the good writers are all hired away. New Republic--Left on welfare, right on warfare!  Jim Pinkerton--Quality ideas come from quantity ideas. Tom Tomorrow--Everyone's favorite leftish cartoonists' blog.  Ann "Too Far" Coulter--Sometimes it's just far enough. Bull Moose--National Greatness Central. John Ellis--Forget that Florida business! The cuz knows politics, and he has, ah, sources. "The Note"--How the pros start their day. Romenesko's MediaNews--O.K. they actually start it here. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities--Money Liberal Central.. Steve Chapman--Ornery-but-lovable libertarian. Rich Galen--Sophisticated GOP insider. Man Without Qualities--Seems to know a lot about white collar crime. Hmmm. horror stories. Eugene Volokh --Smart, packin' prof, and not Instapundit! Eve Tushnet--Queer, Catholic, conservative and not Andrew Sullivan! WSJ's Best of the Web--James Taranto's excellent obsessions. Walter Shapiro--Politics and (don't laugh) neoliberal humor! Eric Alterman--Born to blog. Joe Conason--Bush-bashing, free most days. Lloyd Grove--Don't let him write about you. Arianna--A hybrid vehicle. populists. Take on the News--TomPaine's blog.  B-Log--Blog of spirituality!  Hit & Run:Reason gone wild! Nonzero--Bob Wright explains it all. [More tk.]